I am not a person who enjoys novels. My youngest daughter was therefore astonished when she saw me reading 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. “Yes, but it’s about a potential war between the United States and China. Plus, it’s written by an author I really like and admire, Admiral Stavridis [and Elliot Ackerman]”, I said. I admit that this was an exceptional experience and not only because of the genre, but mainly because this is one of the most thoughtful books anyone interested in geopolitics and the fate of the world should read now.
2034. About 12 years from now. Might as well say tomorrow. Russian President Vladimir Putin still occupies the highest office in the Kremlin – a scenario that made me smile – and the Israelis have lost the Golan after a military confrontation with Syria – an outcome that makes me cringe, since I have seen with my own eyes how vital this territory is to Israel’s security. The Chinese are still vying for “[…] uncontested control of the South China Sea.” Equipped with superior cyber capabilities, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army neutralizes the weapons and communications system of a flotilla of three American warships. Only one of them will remain afloat at the end of the confrontation. A military operation that was supposed to serve as a message turned into a World War.
In a nutshell, Beijing was advantaged by the patient stealth of its strength and “Chinese cyber dominance of the American forces was complete”. Simultaneously, the navigation computer of a US Navy F-35 attached to the USS George H. W. Bush is hijacked by Iranian forces and forced to land at Bandar Abbas Iranian naval base. These two events, synchronized with Moscow’s military intervention “[…] to unite Kaliningrad to the Russian mainland”, present a fictional landscape that would be entertaining if it was not so plausible.
I’m not going to provide further details about the story contained between the two covers of this gripping novel, but 2034 is about the pugilistic shift in “[…] the balance of power on the ocean […]”- a scenario that requires the reader and the leaders to quit the comfort of complacency to think outside the box. I have read in another book that I plan to review here soon that one of the main advantages of Washington’s enemies is that they know the West better than we know them, a reality all too present in these pages.
French political scientist Jean-Pierre Cabestan recently published a book, Demain la Chine: guerre ou paix (Tomorrow’s China: War or Peace), in which he details that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy now ranks first in the world, that it is highly improbable that the United States can get back at the top and that the United States technological advance is eroding.
When you read about the events unfolding in Ukraine, the secessionist aspirations of Serbs in Bosnia, the tensions in the South China Sea or even the necessity for Western governments – like Canada’s and Quebec’s departments – to shut down their websites because of security risks, it doesn’t take tons of imagination to figure that the battlefields of the present and the future are not always far away.
You may call me old-fashioned, but the glimmer of hope in 2034 resides in the fact that, to counterattack efficiently, the Americans decide to rip the technology from their planes to conduct their successful reprisals, “by the seats of their pants”. It is also fascinating to see the discreet, yet determining, role of India – the largest democracy in the world – in tomorrow’s world military affairs. I take two lessons from these vignettes. First, dependence on technology is far from being the surest ally in any confrontation. Sometimes, the good old ways are the best. Second, any military alliance is as strong as its weakest link. In that sense, I always keep in mind that the Austrian-Hungarian empire dragged down Germany during World War I. Conversely, any student of war should pay close attention to who could be your strongest ally. 2034 brings India at the forefront of the world’s military affairs, another development which is most probably not very far from what will indeed happen in the near future.
Elliot Ackerman and Admiral Stavridis also bring lighter touches in their brilliant novel. My favorite is about one of my beloved candies:
““I have a weakness for your M&M’s,” said the [Chinese] admiral absently. They were a military invention. Did you know that? It’s true—the candies were first mass-produced for American GIs in World War Two, specifically in the South Pacific, where they required chocolate that wouldn’t melt” (page 24). I confess, I couldn’t resist grabbing a pack and eating some while I finished the book.
All in all, 2034 not only provides with an excellent source of entertainment – it’s a novel, after all – but also a sobering reflection about the future nature of war. Polemology has a bright future ahead and we should never forget that the object of its study has been present throughout history.
Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, New York, 2021, Penguin Press, 320 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Cristina DaPonte, then with Penguin Random House Canada, for providing me with a copy of this book. Her precious collaboration is continued by her colleagues.